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updated: 12/28/2012 6:53 PM

'Supermax' era ends as last Tamms inmates leave

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  • A nearly 15-year experiment with the super maximum-security prison in Tamms has ended. Shuttering Tamms is part of Gov. Pat Quinn's plan to save money.

    A nearly 15-year experiment with the super maximum-security prison in Tamms has ended. Shuttering Tamms is part of Gov. Pat Quinn's plan to save money.
    Associated Press file photo

Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- One of the more contentious episodes in the history of Illinois prisons ended Friday as the last inmates in the "supermax" lockup in Tamms were moved out and Gov. Pat Quinn's administration prepares to shut it down.

The final five inmates of the high-security home for the "worst of the worst" were shipped to the Pontiac Correctional Center, a prison spokeswoman said. An adjoining minimum-security work camp packed its last four dozen residents off to Sheridan Correctional Center in north-central Illinois.

The departures mark the end of a nearly 15-year experiment with the super maximum-security prison, which advocates continue to believe the state needs -- particularly during a time of record inmate population. But opponents contend the prison's practice of near-total isolation is inhumane and contributes to deteriorating mental health among its convicts.

More than 130 inmates were moved out of the prison in just nine days, after the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that legal action by a state workers' union could no longer hold up the governor's closure plans.

Shuttering Tamms is part of Quinn's plan to save money. The governor also wants to close the women's prison in Dwight and three transitional inmate centers operated by the Department of Corrections, and three juvenile centers under a different agency.

But despite the budget problems, critics have pointed out that the state's prison system has more than 49,000 inmates in space designed for 33,000, now that the 700 beds in the two Tamms units are gone.

The Quinn administration has said the per-inmate housing cost at Tamms was three times that of other facilities. It also maintains that there is room to absorb the displaced Tamms residents safely at Pontiac, one of three remaining maximum-security penitentiaries.

"It's sad for our area, but we're never going to give up," said Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg. "We still have an overcrowding problem. That's the deal with this. The governor has made it worse. Eventually, some of these facilities are going to have to reopen."

Quinn decided to close Tamms because it was too expensive to run, but also because "the idea that we have a prison that is causing mental damage to people in state custody weighed on the governor," according to Laurie Jo Reynolds, organizer of the "Tamms Year Ten" project formed more than four years ago to push for reforms at the supermax prison.

Tamms opened in 1998 as a "closed" maximum-security prison where gang leaders and inmates who incited violence at other lockups would be sent and segregated.

Lawmakers sent Democrat Quinn a budget last spring that included money to keep open Tamms and the other facilities, but which directed that its role as a supermax be ended in favor of housing less-risky inmates there. Quinn vetoed the extra money.

But that funding, which he wanted to shift to child-protection programs, has dwindled because a lawsuit by the prison workers' union over closing the sites kept them open well past the late-summer shutdown dates Quinn favored.

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